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Going underground: testing the potential of citizen science and DNA to explore alpine soil biodiversity

Cairngorms National Park

Citizen science sampling of alpine soils

Soil biodiversity is critical to ecosystem functioning, but our understanding of the richness and distribution of soil organisms lags far behind that of biodiversity above ground. The difficulties of detecting organisms that spend all or most of their time living below ground and a shortage of skilled scientists able to identify them have contributed to our general lack of knowledge. This is particularly true in alpine zones which support some of our most natural habitats and provide important ecosystem services, including supporting unique biodiversity, carbon storage and water supply. The difficulty of accessing remote locations such as the alpine zone compounds the challenges of difficult to detect organisms.

For these reasons, new approaches are needed if we are to fully understand the distribution of soil biodiversity and its implications for the functioning of alpine ecosystems. Use of DNA to detect the presence of organisms from environmental samples has high potential in this regard and in this project, we explored how this could be combined with citizen science to extend the reach of biodiversity surveys.


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Soil biodiversity is vital to maintaining ecosystem functions including carbon and nutrient cycling and for the support of plant and animal diversity aboveground. Scotland’s alpine zone contains some of our most natural habitats, supplies us with clean drinking water, supports important carbon stocks and is home to charismatic plants, birds and mammals. However, our knowledge of alpine soil biodiversity has been limited by difficulties in detecting belowground organisms, a shortage of skilled taxonomists, and the challenges of accessing remote areas.

Recent advances in DNA sequencing technology and reductions in costs have made analysis of DNA in soil or water an increasingly attractive option for assessment and monitoring of biodiversity. Additionally, and particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a rising trend in recreational access to mountain areas, as people seek the benefits of time in nature. These trends provide an opportunity, both to advance our scientific knowledge of mountain soil biodiversity, and to engage and educate the public about its importance.

Citizen science provides opportunities for the public to become involved with scientific research and enables knowledge exchange and insight into scientific methods. We collaborated with the charity Plantlife Scotland, as part of their Cairngorms Rare Plants and Wild Connections project, to trial a citizen science DNA approach to exploring soil fungal diversity in the alpine zone of the Cairngorms National Park.

Fungi are an essential component of all ecosystems, with important roles in decomposition and nutrient cycling but we have limited knowledge of their distribution and diversity. They can however be readily detected by extracting their DNA from soil. The Cairngorms National Park contains one third of the UK’s alpine zone (land above 600 metres) and 58 mountains with an elevation greater than 3000 feet (914 m) known as Munros which are a popular target for hillwalkers and these 58 mountains were chosen as the focus of our study.